NC starting XI: Steph Labbé, Jaelene Hinkle, Abby Erceg, Abby Dahlkemper, Heather O’Reilly, Denise O’Sullivan, Sam Mewis, Debinha, Crystal Dunn, Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald
Reign starting XI: Casey Murphy, Steph Catley, Lauren Barnes, Kristen McNabb, Steph Cox, Allie Long, Bethany Balcer, Bev Yanez, Megan Rapinoe, Jodie Taylor, Darian Jenkins
The North Carolina Courage started their NWSL semifinal against the Reign FC with their usual fast mode of play. The Courage rarely dilly-dally and they were already crashing the box in the 2’, looking for Lynn Williams’ cross as she easily beat Steph Cox and turned the corner. But what looked like a serious vulnerability for the Reign was somewhat mitigated by screening cox with Darian Jenkins higher up the field and their determination to try and play through the spaces NC left behind in the midfield, searching for Megan Rapinoe on the switch or holding up play to allow her to take a look at the goal from closer up.
The problem was dealing with the Courage’s unrelenting pressure long enough to implement their own game plan. Crystal Dunn picked Steph Catley’s pocket in the 8’ and cut the ball back to the top of the 18, which somehow didn’t result in a goal. That was a first-half theme for the Courage: plays that somehow didn’t result in goals. The Courage were dropping a lot of balls from wide searching for Williams or McDonald, and Dunn. Dunn slipped through in the 29’ and forced a huge sliding save from Casey Murphy, who was completely dominant in the air around her net.
The Reign tried to look at more directly play, pushing Bethany Balcer higher and asking her to get behind, but Balcer wasn’t beating Abby Erceg. The Reign’s problems were compounded by some early hesitation from Bev Yanez and Allie Long, both of whom didn’t seem entirely confident about when they should step or drop in midfield, giving the Courage lots of open space to take over possession and initiate a play towards the goal. Yanez got absolutely washed out by Dunn in the 29’ as she was slow onto the ball, allowing the Dunn to body her off and run at the 18. Dunn was her usual involved self, reading the ball and picking off turnovers.
On the other end of the field, the Reign had some fair chances, including a lovely flick down from Balcer in the 37’ that Steph Labbé had to be quick to push away from slipping just inside the post. But if Balcer was a threat inside the box, she was also a liability out of it, often ending Reign possession going into the attacking third with her off-target passing or losing the ball under pressure.
The half ended at 0-0 with the Courage definitely sensing that a breakthrough was close at hand, if only they kept up the battering ram of crosses.
The second half resumed with some high-energy end-to-end play that eventually subsided into slightly more cautious probing around the attacking third by the Courage. Megan Rapinoe was clearly sick of the tie by the 50’ and kept isolating herself up top, trying to force a ball into an advantageous position for Jodie Taylor, but with just the two of them being covered by the entire Courage defense and Taylor sometimes offside, they weren’t producing anything notable.
The Courage began pushing in their usual unrelenting Courage way, penning the Reign back into their own box and peppering them with set pieces, but the Reign defense held tight. They fell back into a more defensive shape, pulling five into their back line, and weathered the constant crosses and runs into the box. Murphy continued to cover her area admirably, smothering balls on the ground and picking them out of the air. But eventually the barrage yielded results, as Williams pierced the back line with a crisp little run. Barnes tracked back trying to cover the inevitable cross and as she slid, put her hand up in the ball’s bath.
Heather O’Reilly stepped up to the spot for the Courage to take the penalty and put it away smoothly, making it 2-0 in the 88’. It looked grim for the Reign, but 79’ sub Ifeoma Onumonu, on for Jodie Taylor, had a beautiful touch on the ball near post, receiving her pass and setting up a nice little slipped ball in past Labbe to make it 1-1 in stoppage.
The Courage took extra time as an opportunity for them, though. They still had all their subs left and quickly put in a fresh Kristen Hamilton for Jess McDonald and kept up the pressure. Debinha earned a foul at the edge of the 18 in the 99’ and her ensuing free kick was a beautiful curler over the wall and into the top 90. The Courage then subbed in McCall Zerboni for O’Sullivan in the 102’, shoring up their backbone and keeping the Reign out of their half. Kristen Hamilton forced the issue as the first half of ET was ticking down, taking a sharp shot that deflected off a defender and pinged off of Casey Murphy into the goal to make it 3-1 in the 106’. Then Crystal Dunn put them up 4-1 with a simple one-timer and it was effectively over for the Reign, who kept fighting, but were simply outgunned.
The Reign couldn’t put together a successful attacking sequence, and eventually the club with the fitter, less-injured, deeper roster ran them into the ground. It’s a rough way for the Reign’s season to end, and a warning from the Courage that they are not here to coddle anyone’s feelings or let anyone capitalize on their apparent vulnerabilities from losing to the other playoff teams during the regular season. It was also a nice look at two successful coaches who may not play each other at the club level again, as Andonovski’s defense eventually gave way beneath Riley’s punishing offense. But whoever wins the Portland/Chicago semifinal, you have to think they’ll be taking careful notes on Andonovski’s tactics, because whatever the scoreline, they did work for the great bulk of 90 minutes.